THERE’S SOMETHING THAT happens when you’re listening to a musician performing at the top of their game. It’s something that a few generations of “indie rock” fans have no basis for understanding, so devolved are their musical expectations. It’s the same thing you experience when you hear a master of traditional Indian music, or a leading exponent of the Western classical idiom: having completely mastered an instrument, there’s an exultant joy in expressing musical notes in a way that some might describe as virtuosic. And if the audience is listening intently, they can tune into that mastery, experience the transporting effect of music, for music’s sake.
Crimson ProjeKCt are a bit like that. They make punishing, difficult time changes and seemingly supernatural performative feats seem as natural as sex, and there’s no sense of the hard yards these guys (and one woman) have put into staying limber and fleet of foot and finger. And speaking of sex, what’s really surprising about Crimson ProjeKCt and its two satellite trios is that what we get tonight isn’t some dry exposition of virtuosity, but at times, a great progressive funk beast that has whole sections of the audience jumping (not humping) and gyrating.
The way guitarist/singer Adrian Belew told it (see my Belew interview here), this “sort of” tribute to King Crimson by some of its members – and a few students of the Fripp aesthetic – would consist of a three-hour gig with three entirely separate sets, starting with Tony Levin’s Stickmen, continuing with Belew’s Power Trio, and ending with everyone performing together as Crimson ProjeKCt. It wasn’t like that. Instead, the full ensemble took the stage at 8.30pm, and right up to 11pm, it was a continuous concert featuring various permutations of the three bands. That made sense, and the ebb and flow of the changing personnel kept things interesting.
For diehard King Crimson fans, this was a must-see gig. While anyone expecting material from the earliest incarnation of the group will have been disappointed, KC fans know that the Greg Lake era of the group hasn’t been represented in concert for many years. What we did get was a selection of the group’s hardest riffing monsters from the ’72-’74 band, and a fair (although not dominant) smattering of Belew-era songs from both the ‘80s and ‘90s version of the group. Those who came to hear Belew sing may have been disappointed: the night was primarily instrumental, but he did pick out some prime tracks, including ‘Frame By Frame’, ‘Dinosaur’, ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ and the gorgeous ballad, ‘One’.
Markus Reuter performs the Robert Fripp-like ‘Touch’ guitar, and he proves a convincing disciple: the evening begins with his version of Frippertronics guitar soundscapes, and where appropriate, he manfully attends to the extraordinary repetitive picking patterns that characterised the ‘80s band. Belew is the showman and it helps that he seems incredibly relaxed in his own skin. It’s the first time he’s performed in NZ since the Bowie tour in ’78, and he apologises for taking 40 years (well, not quite…) to get back here. The only bum note was his occasional insistence on ‘playing’ piano on his guitar. Okay, so modern technology is amazing, but it’s just a gimmick. Having said that, the ‘piano’ moments are short, and I guess it’s just part of Belew’s sense of levity, not taking himself too seriously.
Tony Levin proved a superb foil on Chapman Stick, a kind of supersonic bass, but when the full band was onstage, with Julie Slick also on bass, there was just too much low end. In fact, there was way too much bass gloop in the mix, much of it coming from one or both of the kick-drums. Having two drummers (Tobias Ralph and Pat Mastelotto) was sometimes effective, but the overall bass volume cancelled out some useful parts of the frequency curve. The sound mixer, who travels with the band and overall, achieved a good sound, was up a level at the back, rather than on the floor, making me wonder if the bass gloop wasn’t audible from his position.
The set was punctuated by pieces specific to Stick Men and the Power Trio, but it was the playing, rather than the pieces, that stood out. Levin made a stab at a few half-spoken vocals, but they really just provided a setting for a combination of rehearsed and improvised moves. The most memorable of the Power Trio’s own pieces was ‘E Song’, which featured Belew playing a fast run up and down the fretboard, and layering that run over and over, while his rhythm section chugged away energetically.
Sadly, the concert was poorly attended. It was great for the audience that did attend, however; while it’s never fun to have to stand for the best part of three hours, at least on this occasion there was a bit of body space, and the ability of average-sized people like me to find a way to peek around the heads of those obscenely tall bastards who always insist on standing in front of you at gigs. [Why the hell don’t they just go to the back of the hall? It should be mandatory]. I guess the paucity of attendance says volumes about the lack of support – especially in the media – for progressive rock (or should I say ‘musicianly’ rock) over the past few decades. While the genre is making a huge comeback internationally, we’ve been inculcated with the idea that, while it’s okay for classical or jazz musicians to be virtuosos, there’s something wrong to be a virtuoso in the rock context. (On the other hand, perhaps it’s just that the Town Hall was hosting the Beatles’ 50th anniversary concert on the same night? As it happens, there weren’t as many old bastards in the audience as I would have expected. There were, however, females in attendance.)
I could write a never-ending review of this marathon gig. It wasn’t perfect, but then, it wasn’t designed to be. These guys spend a fair bit of time improvising; some parts work better than others when you’ve pulled the rug out.
While Robert Fripp wasn’t there in person, his imprint, and that of his Guitar Craft course (which, in essence, is a philosophy of music) was there in everything these guys did. If Fripp had been in attendance, the proceedings may have been a little more austere, a lot more serious, and not quite as loose or (dare I say it, “rockist”), but that’s both good and bad.
I’m glad I went. GARY STEEL
Sound = 3/5 stars
Music = 4/5 stars
Note: The above photos were not taken at The Studio concert.
Subsequent, slightly grumpy note: At the door, when I presented my name as belonging to the “guest list”, the guy said “just what we need”. I was too keen to get into the venue to argue, but clearly, he was referring to the low patronage, and wanting me to feel a twinge of guilt for accepting a free ticket to the event. I don’t know who the guy was. Perhaps he was band management, or venue drone, but here’s the thing: I spent several days of my time in what the promoter would call “promoting” the gig. Of my own volition, and without any payment, I interviewed and wrote a piece on the band, then I “worked” social media. In total, this took close to two days in which I could have been working to pay my mortgage. If I have the cash to afford a gig, I like to support the musicians, but had I not received a complimentary ticket to this event, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it, end of story. So anyway, to the guy at the ticket counter: fuck you very much.